Alex McMurray Talks Back

Offbeat Magazine

Offbeat Magazine by John Swenson

After the forced evacuation of New Orleans in 2005, some of the earliest returnees were musicians who came back after an exile that convinced them there was no place on earth that would nurture their music better than the beautiful Crescent.


The art that some of them created was great, in some cases astonishingly so, as a new era of New Orleans music emerged, fired in the Biblical crucible of a literal deluge and exodus. Some of it, in the beyond-time nature of this spirit-deep city, had been in progress or just completed when the disaster hit. When you are channeling the zeitgeist, you may just as well be predicting the future as reporting on what just happened.

Six months out from the start of the COVID-19 panic of 2020, a picture of New Orleans music in the age of the pandemic is starting to emerge. In a refraction of the post-Katrina effort, this time the musicians aren’t trying to return to the city to reestablish the culture, they’re trying to figure out how to do what they do in a city that is locked down with all the clubs closed up. Instead of live music they are developing new techniques for DIY projects and internet-generated content.

Picture the Basement Tapes being available right on your cellphone being created in real time, one classic after another spooled out while the jug is always at hand. That’s the kind of vibe Alex McMurray brings to his weekly livestreams from his living room, which he calls “The Faraway Lounge,” in his persona as “Mr. Tuesday Night,” based on a song he wrote a few years back. Thirty weeks into lockdown, McMurray has fine-tuned his Tuesday Night Live show to a precision-driven video art project. McMurray is a talented songwriter and guitarist with hundreds of songs in his book and a wry, intimate delivery that actually works better in a livestream from his living room than in a club with people talking and drinking as he performs. He chats directly to the audience watching him on his Facebook feed. He posts his PayPal information so people can send virtual tips. He even has a theme song. 


One of the good things about McMurray’s livestreams is that he’s reliable—every Tuesday night at 8 p.m. Central Time he’s out there playing for his fans. The shows have varied dramatically from week to week and McMurray has evolved as the process has gone on. He has taken requests, revisited old favorites, introduced new songs, even taken his set on a month-long summer road trip from remote locations, and debuted three albums worth of material on his show. The latest is what may be his best record yet, Road Songs. McMurray, like a lot of other New Orleans musicians, has done his share of traveling, and he’s been at it long enough to build himself a roadmap bibliography of adventures. It’s all here, nine songs about moving hither and yon on the continent, the planet, inner space and the next dimension. Literally grounded as the stories of travels and people are, these songs nevertheless evoke a landscape so numinous, a dreamscape so life-like, it’s almost like science fiction. The witty, sometimes arch McMurray of legend brings no laughter to this song cycle of weariness, loss, acceptance and ultimately, wisdom. He wrote the songs long before our current condition, but they reflect the mood of the time perfectly. It’s as if he has meditated on the long, protracted tragedy to come, the pandemic that has engulfed the world, and seen it all with a visionary gaze.


We’re in uncharted waters, captain.

Quintron said it best. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like “The one thing I’m really good at is playing to a packed house in a small room, which turns out to be the most dangerous thing on the planet.” The prudent thing to do is to stop that. Opening up the clubs is the last thing that’s gonna happen. I can’t argue with that. I don’t wanna be in that room.


We’re losing some iconic clubs in the process. You wrote a beautiful reminiscence about the recently defunct Circle Bar. Can you amplify your thoughts on that?

Kelly Keller brought me in over there. I wanted to bartend on Sunday night because in those days I’d do a


Alex McMurray with John Gros. (Photo by: Stephen Maloney)

gig and make $40 and the bartender would make $150. I thought “I could do that.” She let me have that Sunday night shift. I was not a great bartender, but it was okay. But she had the idea that I would play solo on Wednesdays. I told her “I can’t do that.” She said, “What do you mean?” I said “What happens when there’s a solo section? I can’t play the rhythm and the solo at the same time.” She said, “Well you’ll figure it out.” Because she did that, and I think about this all the time, I’m actually able to keep a roof over our heads here, because I can work by myself. Not everyone can do that. If you can play the piano and sing or play guitar and sing you’ve got an advantage over, say, a trumpet player. So, I think about Kelly every day now during these days. Every time I get a solo gig I think “I never would have had this gig if it wasn’t for her.” I learned how to do it on the job. John Rankin can do it right, Spencer Bohren could do it; it’s like they’re seniors in high school and I’m in third grade. Songs are only about a minute and a half long and after that you either have to make some shit up or play some guitar. To do that by yourself and make it sound like something, it’s not easy.


That approach has helped your songwriting.

I think so. And when I had that gig I tried any tune that would work and that’s kind of how I got into my love for a weekly gig. Royal Fingerbowl had a weekly gig, but this was a place where you could workshop your shit. And people know you’re gonna be there.


When was your last live gig before the pandemic, and how quickly did you switch to livestreaming?

I played my last live gig at the SideBar with Brian Coogan on March 13. That was it. I remember that gig very distinctly, obviously. I think I played with my band the night before at the Saturn. Stuff was changing fast. One of the people who came to my shows asked, “Are you gonna be here on the 23rd?” and I said, “I don’t think so.” I had a feeling we were going to be out of commission for a long time. Time just stopped. Everybody went online. I knew I had to do something, so we were doing this by the end of March. I’d never done it, but I knew you could just put a phone in front of yourself and play. I can do that. But it’s harder than that. At first, I used my phone, but there were technical problems. The first show dropped out completely. We tried different rooms around the house. The first room was in front of this fireplace, the defunct fireplace that everybody has, and that’s where we came up with the Fireside Lounge or Fireside Chat idea. Then we tried our bedroom one week. My wife had a better phone so we started using that, with better results, and we paid the bounty to Cox to get more bandwidth, then added a digital converter so we could use a condenser microphone and the quality improved by degrees. I put up a backdrop and some Christmas lights. The “Alex” neon sign is something somebody gave me years ago.

When everything stopped, I thought we were just going to burn through all our savings, everything we had. But the first couple of weeks online, the money was amazing.


The set up, via @mcmurray.alex Instagram


It’s like a virtual club.

That’s the idea. It was supposed to be something reassuring, like Mr. Rogers or Pee Wee’s Playhouse, that you could count on. You go to Alex’s lounge, he’s there every Tuesday night. It’s bordering on the schmaltzy and cheesy, just trying to keep it light. I’ve always believed in a regular gig for good or ill. There are weeks that are great weeks and weeks that suck, but it’s got to be there every time or people are gonna go somewhere else. And also, I need to practice. And I need to work out my songs. I am sitting in my house working on new material, but I don’t sit at home and practice my new songs. I might try to learn the lyrics while I’m walking around or something, but I don’t practice songs as much as I should.


Right away you came up with the idea of soliciting requests for songs from the audience.

I can’t read the comments on the phone ’cause it’s too small but I’m going to run the Facebook feed on a TV and do requests on the fly. I’ve always asked people to send in requests beforehand and if it’s something obscure or weird I have to learn it. I’m about to start a thing called “Cover Corner” where I do some pop tune no one can ever imagine me doing. The first one is going to be “That’s What Friends Are For.” I’ll put some of them on YouTube.


Have there been any particular requests that have surprised you?

When we went to Michigan, we wanted requests for Michigan-based artists. I was surprised that so many people asked for Kid Rock. We were there for a couple of weeks and I decided to do some Bob Seger and MC5, Motown, Smokey Robinson, people from Michigan, so I learned a dozen tunes and did the whole Michigan playlist.


I was amazed that you were able to take the show on the road. You did a couple of weeks from the side of a lake in Michigan. It felt like Chaz Fest. One minute you’re playing, then it starts raining and you have to scurry off.

And then there were the bugs. The bugs were so insane. We had this bright light to light the set, but it attracted bugs. But overall, it wasn’t that hard. All you need is the backdrop, a phone, a small tripod, the mixer, microphone, and Christmas lights. The whole thing fits comfortably into a duffel bag.


Road Songs is a real departure for you, a stark, almost apocalyptic record about wandering and looking for meaning.

I did that around that same time as The Lucky One, 2018. I wanted to do a record based around a theme, which I’d never done. I had some of these songs partially written for a long time and decided to finish them for this project along with some newly written material. I also wanted it to be a record of songs without ironic content, which for the most part it is. There was one song that was a little too much like that, so I left it off.


The characters in these songs are wanderers looking for meaning in life that they couldn’t find in the places they’d left behind. It made me think of the travelers who’ve populated New Orleans in recent years, including a lot of musicians, some of whom you’ve played with.

Yeah, I thought about that. I even wrote a song called “Travelers” which I haven’t been able to get finished for some reason.


The tone of this album really reminds me of Bob Dylan.

Well, when I was in Japan, I listened to The Basement Tapes a lot. People have said some of my songs sound like The Band. The record was recorded very dry, which lends itself to that kind of comparison.


There’s a lot of apocalyptic imagery, like birds falling from the sky. I love the opening song, “Around the World,” which kind of sets the stage for the album, then ends with a little homily, advice to the listener about not spending your love too quickly but saving it for the long run.

At one point I was thinking of that as a kind of message to my son. But it turned into something else.


I was wondering if your work with the Write Brothers and particularly Spencer Bohren influenced the somber narratives of this record.

We didn’t do that last Write Brothers record until after this one was finished. My one big regret is that we didn’t get enough time to work on that before Spencer passed away. The rest of us, what I call The Left Brothers, are planning on a doing a livestream at some point. I just talked to Paul Sanchez about that. But yeah, Spencer had a profound effect on me.


So, you’re going to keep your livestreams going, even on November 3rd where you might do some kind of an election results watch party with music.

That’s why I’m Mr. Tuesday Night. If I’m not sent to the hospital, I’ll just keep doing it. This one will be week 30. After I’m done, I sit in my kitchen and look through the comments. It’s always the same 20 people tipping and commenting, but I get like 1,000 views. The best part is they’re talking to each other. It’s like a little club.